Words and images by Francheska Russo
A giant sinkhole formed thousands of years ago has transformed from a simple sinkhole to a focal point for explorers. You’ll find it in the midst of North Florida’s sandy terrain and pine forests, a deep, bowl-shaped cavity 120 feet deep and 500 feet across — the Devil’s Millhopper.
“Before the sink existed it was a flat surface, and underneath was a large cavity forming over millions and millions of years,” explained Florida Geological Survey geologist Clint Kromhout. “The roof got so thin over the cavity that it couldn’t hold its own weight, eventually caving in.”
Small streams trickle down the steep slops of the limestone sinkhole, disappearing through crevices in the ground. Lush vegetation thrives in the shade of the walls even in dry summers.
“It’s definitely a great place to stop if you’re nearby. You can do the rim trail or look through the information in the visitor center,” said Robert Steele, park manager of Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, located in north Gainesville. “It doesn’t take long to enjoy the park, but it’s definitely worth the stop.”
Be sure to wear your hiking shoes and take a half-mile trail around the rim of the sinkhole then travel down the 232 steps to the bottom. Bring a picnic and enjoy your meal at the park or take a trip a few miles down the road to San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park to eat and enjoy.
The Millhopper is hidden just north of Gainesville on Northwest 53rd Avenue. The avenue’s local name, Millhopper Road, reflects what it passes by.
Perhaps because of its connection with Lucifer the sink has always had a dubious reputation.
Native-American legends supposedly detail how a local Indian Princess whom the devil wanted to marry was “swallowed” by the hole, presumably sending the maiden to her groom. Later stories of settlers in the area detail similar tales of the sink’s bloodthirsty nature.
It’s not so scary now and, in fact, the park allows individuals to explore the gigantic sinkhole on their own. There are also several scheduled hikes down the steep trail.
“We have a ranger-led hike every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. free with your admission to the park,” Steele said. “During the hike you get even more information about the history of the hole and you’ll be able to ask questions and learn about the vegetation that the Millhopper is known for.”
Lush ferns, needle palms, orchids and many other plants including stately live oaks and towering spruce pines and swamp chestnut oaks are found along the slopes of the sinkhole. Elsewhere, in the uplands surrounding the sinkhole, longleaf pines dominate the landscape.
Because of the sink’s depth, many different ecosystems exist as you descend deeper and deeper into the cavity. The temperature also begins to drop considerably, making the lower levels of the sink a spot for plants that usually only flourish much farther north.
At the bottom, a miniature rainforest and trickling stream – or small lake depending on the rain that season – delights visitors. Over the years, animal bones and other items have also been found scattered on the sink floor, feeding the legends that say it was a spot where the devil captured beasts for his meals.
Despite all those stories, over the years the Devil’s Millhopper has enchanted many visitors. Including park rangers.
“I’ve been going to the Millhopper since I was a kid, and now I take my kids there,” Steel said. “There’s an air of wonder when you’re down there and it sends goosebumps down my spine still to this day.”